In the winter of my junior year in high school, my mom and dad took a ten-day trip to China, leaving me at home to fend for myself. It was, for a number of reasons, a time I’ll never forget.
For starters, I lost my virginity. My girlfriend and I were just pulling our pants up when we heard the garage door open—my parents back several hours earlier than expected.
During their absence, I also had several phone conversations with my father’s schizophrenic cousin. Back then, he was in the habit of calling different members of the family to rant and make threats until they hung up on him. For some reason, though, he was more subdued with me, and I ended up getting drawn into a long back-and-forth, then another, and another. I can’t recall what we talked about, only the lugubrious, vaguely sinister way he spoke and the feeling I was doing something I shouldn’t.
My girlfriend and my disturbed relative weren’t the only ones keeping me company. That was what made my time alone special: I was never really alone. Hearing I was unsupervised, the better part of my social circle came to hang out and sleep over. My buddy Sam, who was always way ahead of me in the race to grow up, brought two girls I didn’t know. We stayed up all night watching Sofia Coppola and Zoe Cassavettes’ bizarro DIY show Hi-Octane, which, for years after, I thought I must have hallucinated.
My friend Jordan took up residence for several days. At some point, we found a coconut in the front yard (as one does when growing up in a subtropical paradise) and decided to make a smoothie. After repeatedly flinging it against the concrete driveway, we managed to open up a crack, in which Jordan promptly got his fingers stuck. We were on the verge of calling for an ambulance but somehow managed to pry the thing apart just enough to free Jordan and scrape out some shreds of coconut meat for our concoction. Too bad we forgot to put the top on the blender. The kitchen looked like the set of a splatter flick. Ah, to be young again.
It was shaping up to be another all-nighter, and I was getting punchy by the time Jordan said there was this new band I had to hear. Of the two of us, I was the bigger music aficionado. Jordan was one of those guys you find in every high school who knows his Hendrix backwards and forwards but isn’t up on the latest thing. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when he dropped the CD in my parents’ stereo.
What I heard made my little house feel like its own undiscovered world. The lateness of the hour no doubt played a part, but I wasn’t drunk or stoned—because I was never drunk or stoned. The music was layered and complex, a swirl of instruments I wasn’t used to hearing in the alternative rock of the day but also immediately accessible. There was a funkiness to it, an easy dexterity. The singer had a sweet lilt to his voice but could drop into a growl when the song called for it. He seemed to know things. I only caught the lyrics in snatches but they suggested a mind at work, a life lived.
That album was Under the Table and Dreaming by Dave Matthews Band. What can I tell you? I didn’t know any better.
As time passes and history gets written, it’s easy to forget how eclectic the music of the early-to-mid ’90s was. There was grunge and gangsta, sure, but also SWV and the Soup Dragons, P.M. Dawn and The Proclaimers. Having been to Lollapalooza that past summer and seen everyone from Nick Cave to George Clinton, Dave Matthews didn’t strike me as particularly out of context. I had pretty open ears, anyway. You’d be just as likely to find Charles Mingus or The Beach Boys in my Discman as anything 120 Minutes-approved.
I also had big gaps in my knowledge, though. For instance, I don’t think I knew exactly what a jam band was. Phish was already around at that point, but I’m fairly certain I hadn’t heard them or even heard of them. I was aware of what happened at a Grateful Dead concert, but it didn’t cross my mind to put Dave and the guys in the same category.
Partly, that’s because they don’t actually do all that much jamming on Under the Table and Dreaming. Like the Dead before them, DMB was a different band in the studio than on stage, looking to fit their instrumental interplay into a more radio-friendly mold. Believe it or not, the artist they most reminded me of was Peter Gabriel. That probably had a lot to do with the video for “What Would You Say,” which I caught sometime after that initial listening session with Jordan. Definite “Sledgehammer”/“Big Time” vibes there. But I also detected something vaguely worldbeat in the “hey-la” chorale at the end of “The Best of What’s Around,” something a bit prog in the way “Dancing Nancies” cycles through martial drum, jazz sax, and gypsy fiddle (not that I knew the terms “worldbeat” or “prog” back then either).
Even when I saw the band live at a theater in Ft. Lauderdale a few months later, accompanied by Jordan and a girl he was trying to date, I still didn’t make the connection. Sure, the songs got way longer in concert with lots of room for soloing, but didn’t all bands do that to one degree or another? I came away from the show even more impressed than I’d been before. (The opening acts—Smoking Popes and Big Head Todd & The Monsters—were pretty rad, too, if you asked fifteen-year-old me.) I bought a t-shirt that was too big for me with some kind of yellow tribal design and wore it for the rest of high school.
Fast forward to freshman year of college. Jordan talked me into seeing DMB at Madison Square Garden. No more theaters, Dave having become a full-fledged rock star in the interim. This time around, I wasn’t feeling it. At all. Crash, the follow-up to Under the Table, had come out a few months earlier, right around my graduation from high school, and I remember liking it, especially the now-infamous title ballad. So, what changed? The bloated ticket price certainly didn’t help, nor did the acoustics at the Garden (never was there a more appropriate venue for the song “Warehouse”), nor did the interminable cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” which struck me as a total mismatch with the band’s style.
I think the deciding factor, though, was that going to college finally gave me a picture of what a Dave Matthews fan was supposed to look like. I’d attended a high school for the arts. The predominant look was trench coats and Doc Martens, not pukka shells and sandals. The cargo shorts, the hacky sack, the unspeakable Caucasian shimmy—that wasn’t how I saw myself, and now that I lived in New York City, of all places, it wasn’t who I wanted to be.
My taste in music remained broad, but I was starting to draw a line around it. The first new friend I made in college was a Deadhead. That was definitely outside the line for me, and so was Dave Matthews. After that concert at the Garden, I never listened to Under the Table, Crash, or any of the albums that followed. Instead, I spent freshman year seeking out the kind of artists who spoke to the adult I wanted to become: Luna, Bob Mould, The Bottle Rockets. Jordan was with me for all of those shows. (For better and worse: He got carded at the Bottle Rockets gig, and we had to listen from the street outside.) The friendship far outlived our Dave Matthews moment. It’s lasted even longer than that “All Along the Watchtower.”
Dave Matthews’ place in the culture has undergone a bit of a shift over the past couple of years. The climactic scene of 2017’s beloved Lady Bird involves Saoirse Ronan’s awkward teen telling off her too-cool-for-school companions when they sneer at “Crash Into Me” playing on the car radio. Last year, the hipster-approved psych-folk guitarist Ryley Walker released an earnest whole-album cover of DMB’s Lillywhite Sessions, an unreleased but widely bootlegged set from around the turn of the century. More recently, the internet seized on a college newspaper column by presidential candidate and media darling Pete Buttigieg in which he takes stock of his DMB fandom—in the context of 9/11, no less.
Confronted with this late-breaking appreciation, Matthews has been taking stock, too. In a surprisingly candid and searching interview with Vulture, he noted ruefully, “Without question—and some express it with more vinegar than others—there are people who truly don’t like my band. I think a lot of them just go, “I hate the Dave Matthews Band” because they saw someone they didn’t like in one of our T-shirts.” [Whistles and looks away.]
So, if everyone else has been reevaluating their feelings about the man and his music, why not me? Listening to Under the Table again for the first time in decades, I was struck by how well I still knew every track, even the closing instrumental. When you think of a jam band, memorable songs aren’t necessarily what come to mind (not my mind, anyway). But from the beginning, DMB were more than the sum of their grooves. They had a way with melody and arrangement that could be elegant (as on the ballad “Satellite”), effervescent (the deserving hit single “Ants Marching”), or dark-edged (“Rhyme & Reason”). Their peculiar instrumental palette of acoustic guitar, bass, drums, sax, and violin somehow never feels like a gimmick. And while the words at times seem like rhythmic placeholders, more often than not, they’re expressing something that sneakily subverts the tone of the music. “Satellite” is an ahead-of-its-time meditation on surveillance, “Ants Marching” about the emptiness of workaday life.
All in all, I can understand why Under the Table might be someone’s favorite album. Then, how come I could happily never listen to it again? Maybe it’s Leroi Moore’s sax, which can be an overbearing presence on the album, like a pool of syrup on top of a perfectly fine pancake (can something be overbearing and mellow at the same time?). Maybe it’s Dave himself, who sounds a little too eager to please. On further reflection, the aforementioned Vedder-lite growl he breaks out for “Rhyme & Reason” is particularly corny. And hearing one of his tasty guitar licks is enough to conjure an image of him in front of a crowd, doing what fans apparently refer to as his “crazy legs” dance. Maybe, like Lady Bird’s frenemies, I just can’t get over myself.
I’ll tell you this, though: I wish I could experience the album, or any album, the way I did that first time, before staying up late was an imposition, when sex and madness were in the air but friends were home base. Every year, I hear new music that gets my juices flowing, but nothing that I can’t situate in relation to my own established taste and identity. I’ve spent the better part of my life drawing that line, never thinking it would ever hem me in.
Daniel Browne has contributed to Salon, The Oxford American, The Believer, The Bitter Southerner, and 40 Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, among others. His novel In the Weeds is out now. You can visit him at danielbrowne.net.